Rogers, Roy (1912-1998)

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Rogers, Roy (1912-1998)

Roy Rogers, with his horse, Trigger, came to prominence in the late 1930s and early 1940s, following closely in the footsteps of singing cowboy Gene Autry. Rogers' rise to stardom transformed the "singing cowboy" from an isolated phenomenon to a recognized movie genre, and his popular success, added to Autry's, brought screen stardom in turn to Tex Ritter, Jimmy Wakely, Monte Hale, Johnny Mack Brown, and others. None of them attained the iconic status of Rogers or Autry, but all of them contributed to the mythology of the straight-shooting, clean-living hero who is also sensitive enough, in a folksy, regular-guy sort of way, to pick up a guitar and sing a song or two. The singing cowboy movie was—at least in retrospect—a natural phenomenon for the 1930s. The old West was only a generation or so removed from movie audiences, and the cowboy films or "B" Westerns (as opposed to the weightier Western as conceived by John Ford) spoke to the public's sense of nostalgia. Then, too, the arrival of sound in the cinema created a demand for music and singing, which dovetailed neatly with the Rogers-style Westerns, set in an increasingly stylized world not unlike the fanciful Ruritanian villages of light opera, which created a perfect backdrop for good-looking, guitar-playing, singing heroes.

Unlike Gene Autry, Rogers didn't have a western background, but he did come from a rural environment. Born Leonard Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio, he moved to California with his father, a migrant laborer, and worked as a fruit picker and truck driver, as well as singing with a variety of country groups. In the California of the 1930s, country music was influenced by Hollywood pop and by Western Swing, and Rogers (then using the name Dick Weston) was in groups with names like Uncle Tom Murray's Hollywood Hillbillies, the International Cowboys, and the O-Bar-O Cowboys. In 1934, with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, he formed a group called the Pioneer Trio which, shortly after, changed its name to the Sons of the Pioneers. The Sons of the Pioneers was a harmony trio, more influenced by barbershop and contemporary jazz-flavored pop groups like the Modernaires than by any country music, but they had a unique sound and, in Nolan, the advantage of a brilliant songwriter ("Tumbling Tumbleweeds," "Cool Water"). They became an important influence on the country and western music that followed them. Rogers, in fact, is the only person to have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame twice—once as a solo performer, and once as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers.

Rogers broke into movies in the mid-1930s, playing bit parts in Westerns, first for Columbia Pictures and then for Republic, Autry's studio and the leading purveyor of "B" Westerns. His first starring role was in Under Western Stars (1938), and for the next five years, he and Autry shared stardom at Republic, with Autry still considered the screen's "King of the Cowboys." When Autry went into the Air Force during World War II, Republic threw all the weight of its publicity machine behind Rogers, and his career really took off. From 1943 through 1954, he was listed by a theater owners' poll as the top Western star in Hollywood.

In a genre characterized by stylization, Rogers was perhaps the most stylized of all, as evidenced in his colorful and distinctive outfits, designed by Nudie of Hollywood. Other cowboys had been associated with horses, from Tom Mix (Tony) to Autry (Champion), but no other cowboy had a horse as colorful and identifiable as Rogers's palomino, Trigger, billed as "the smartest horse in movies." Other cowboys had sidekicks, but none quite as colorful as Rogers's Gabby Hayes. Rogers inherited Autry's title of King of the Cowboys, and his wife, Dale Evans, whom he married in 1947, was dubbed the Queen of the West.

Rogers became a symbol of an idealized America in the spirit and style of Norman Rockwell's paintings. He represented the normality that Americans were seeking in the aftermath of the war years but, eventually, his films proved too tame for later postwar audiences. His on-screen romances, generally with Evans, were shy and chaste, and his action sequences had a low violence quotient; he would shoot the gun out of the bad guy's hand, toss away his own, and subdue the baddie in a rousing but fair fist fight. To a generation that had seen the horrors of war, this was at first reassuring, then tame and corny, and Rogers' popularity waned, along with that of the "B" Western.

A shrewd businessman, Rogers took his talents to television, aiming his initial show at younger audiences whose parents, the cowboy's former fans, enthusiastically encouraged their children to enjoy the innocent myths that Rogers perpetrated. The Roy Rogers Show debuted in 1951 and continued with first-run episodes until 1957, retaining the familiar style of Rogers' big-screen image. It was all there: Roy and Dale on their ranch, the Double R Bar; sidekick Pat Brady (formerly with the Sons of the Pioneers, replacing Gabby Hayes); wonder horse Trigger and faithful dog Bullet; Dale's horse Buttermilk and Brady's jeep Nellybelle. The show's theme song, "Happy Trails" (by Evans, a skilled songwriter), remains a national catchphrase. Rogers' popularity through the 1950s was international, and of his over 200 fan clubs the one in London, with over 50,000 members, was estimated to be the biggest such club for any performer, anywhere on earth.

In 1962, Rogers and his wife co-hosted a variety program, The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, but most of his time since the late 1950s was given over to building a substantial business empire that included ownership of a TV company, interests in thoroughbred horses, real estate, and rodeo, and his well-known Roy Rogers fast food chain. In 1967, he opened the Roy Rogers museum in Apple Valley, California. The most noteworthy display, among other Rogers memorabilia, was Trigger himself, stuffed and mounted in a rearing posture.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Rogers made a singing comeback, recording solo and as a duet performer with Clint Black and others. Some said it was a publicity move to advertise his restaurant chains by reviving his image for a generation that didn't know who he was. Whether or not this was so, his legacy remained strong, with even Bruce Willis's character in Die Hard (1988), for example, invoking Roy Rogers as his ideal of courage and decent values.

—Tad Richards

Further Reading:

Morris, Georgia, and Mark Pollard, editors. Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys. San Francisco, Collins, 1994.

Phillips, Robert W. Roy Rogers: A Biography, Radio History, Television Career Chronicle, Discography, Filmography, Comicography, Merchandising and Advertising History. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, 1995.

Rogers, Roy, and Dale Evans, with Carlton Stowers. Happy Trails. New York, Guideposts, 1979.

Rogers, Roy, and Dale Evans, with Jane and Michael Stern. Happy Trails: Our Life Story. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1994.

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Rogers, Roy (1912-1998)

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